Ancient America at the Panama -California
Exposition, San Diego, California
By Edgar L. Hewett
Director of the School of American Archaeology
FOR the first time in the history of Expositions an entire building
is devoted to Ancient America. Not one for which no other use
could be found, but the noble California building, greatest of
all in the Exposition City.
Here will be seen the most important works of the ancient peoples
of Central America. They present a picture of an age in America of
which Americans generally are not well informed, namely, that which
immediately preceded the coming of Europeans to the western con-
tinent. Knowledge of American history usually begins with the
period of discovery and conquest, and follows down to the present
time. Here we begin at the usual point and looking back, view the
history of a civilization that reached its zenith and went down before
it was known to white men.
The cities that have long lain buried in the tropical jungles have
been the subject of much misleading romance. Fantastic theories
about these people, their Oriental or Egyptian origin, their empires,
kings, queens, and courts, the mystery of " Vanished Races " — all
this may be dismissed. There is nothing mysterious about it. The
ancient temple builders of Central America were American Indians.
All the characteristics of the race are seen in these ancient monuments.
Like other races they slowly struggled up through a long period of
evolution, matured, for a time expressed their mental and spiritual
power in great works, ran their course and died, as is inevitable with
individuals and races when they grow old.
It would be misleading to pretend that any connected history of
the Central American Cities could be written at this time. Their
records, in the form of hieroglyphic inscriptions, are a sealed book,
except as they relate to numeration and chronology. None of the
characters used in the writings of the Mayas bear any resemblance
■*PP«»u;i 1 J*..:---i
whatever to those of the Egyptian or any other ancient people. All
reports to the effect that Orientals have been able to interpret the
symbols of the Central American monuments, or understand the lan-
guage of the native people, may be put down as false.
For the study of the hieroglyphic writings we must depend mainly
upon the inscriptions carved in stone. These, found on monuments,
walls, tablets, and lintels, have survived the ruin of the ages. Sacred
books, or codices, were once numerous, but now only three are known
to exist. Large numbers of them were destroyed at the time of the
Spanish conquest of Yucatan on account of their supposedly pagan
Nothing could be set down as final with reference to the date
of any Central American city in terms of the Christian calendar. In
the subject of Maya chronology there is little agreement among stu-
dents. Certain authorities, who are worthy of the highest respect,
date the Maya cities as early as the twelfth century b. c. Others place
them in the early part of the Christian era.
Without entering upon a discussion of this subject, the writer is
disposed to fix the period represented by the monuments in this ex-
hibit, within the first thousand years of our era. During the first
half of this millennium civilization flourished in Central America,
attained its zenith, and during the latter half, through causes unknown
to us, decline occurred.
Among the older cities are Copan, Quirigua, Tikal, and Palenquc:
the later are Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and other cities of Northern Yuca-
tan. When America was first seen by the Europeans, the Central
American cities lay in ruins in the jungles, as they do now.
Evidences of a long period prior to the setting up of the sculp-
tured monuments and the inscriptions of hieroglyphic tablets are now
being found in Guatemala. No proof exists to show that this civili-
zation was derived from Egypt or the Orient. On the contrary, it ap-
pears certain that during a period of many centuries it arose, flour-
ished, and declined upon the soil of Central America. In this it re-
sembled the Egyptian, which ran its entire course in the Valley of
It is customary to speak of the people of all the Central American
cities as the Mayas, but that they were all of one stock cannot be
claimed with certainty. It could not be proven that the people of
Copan and Quirigua in the Motagua Valley spoke the same language
or that they were the same stock as the people of the cities of Yuca-
tan or the Usamacinta Valley in Mexico. The fact that they used
the same architectural principles in building and the same hieroglyphic
symbols is not conclusive of linguistic or ethnic identity. In the Rio
Grande Valley in New Mexico it is not uncommon to find two Indian
towns less than twenty miles apart where the people speak entirely
different languages, yet build their houses and sanctuaries in the same
way, and use the same symbolic characters.
The ancient cities of Central America may properly be spoken of
as " Temple Cities." Among the ruined buildings there is little to sug-
gest residential use or domestic life. It is probable that the ancient
people lived much as do those of the present time, in houses of bam-
boo, or other light material, thatched with palm. This civilization
was profoundly religious in character, a trait of the entire American
Indian race. With probably no other people known has religious cere-
mony been so generally intermingled with all the activities of life. As
the condition of society called for nothing elaborate in residence build-
ing, so, also, the political organization was such as to require little
in the way of public building for civic purposes. Monarchy was
unknown. The government was theocratic and republican in charac-
ter. There was no splendor of courts and no state government to
But religious life was highly organized. Everything else was sub-
servient. The mysteries of the priesthood necessitated sanctuaries,
shrines, altars, gorgeous vesture, and representations of gods. Impos-
ing ceremonies, processions, and rituals demanded temples, sacred pre-
cincts, and facilities for the display of magic power with which to
awe the populace. The building of a city meant the erection of tem-
ples and statues and their embellishment with images, inscriptions,
and symbolic decorations.
Never before have the noble works of the Mayas been given such
a setting as here in the Exposition of San Diego, and never before
have they been presented in such perfection. Some of us dare to hope
that this is the beginning of a general awakening to the importance of
a great people, possibly to the opening up of a veritable treasure-house
of knowledge, long obscured but not destined to perpetual oblivion.
Lomaland Photo. & Engraving Dept.
SCULPTURAL MONUMENT, QUIRIGUA, GUATEMALA
Printed at The Aryan Theosophical Press
Point Loma, California
U. S. A.